Source Reduction and Reuse
For the industrial packaging industry, the good news is that, unlike consumer packaging, industrial packagings that are designed and used in the most efficient business manner are well optimized under most sustainability metrics. That which serves sustainability, also leads to business efficiency. As we see in the above diagram from US EPA, source reduction and reuse are the most preferred paths to sustainability in packaging programs. For industrial packagings, the product quantity/packaging ratio is very high as a business imperative. And, the most developed packaging reuse programs extant are found in the industrial packaging industry. Industrial packaging manufacturers and re-conditioners work together on programs to facilitate extensive reuse of these packagings. Hence, source reduction and reuse are built into the incentives of the system.
When it comes to re-cycling, it is also true that most industrial packagings are made of readily recyclable materials. But, their use in the chemical industry often prevents this capability from being realized, especially in the case of plastic packagings.
In addition, important advances have been made in the use of re-cycled materials in the production of industrial packagings. This is additional work that has made significant improvement in sustainability capability.
In conversations with many sustainability advocates, this option is often sneered at more than it deserves. Many waste to energy programs must deal with low combustion energy materials and look for sources of combustion calories. Plastic packaging, that is not eligible for recycling can be a significant source for this needed energy. As can paper and fiberboard that is not eligible for re-cycling. There are negative aspects of this path to the grave for packaging; but they can be mitigated, and are far preferable to landfilling. Waste to energy should not be discounted as a viable diversion from landfilling.
Treatment and Disposal
For industrial packaging manufacturers and users, this is the situation that should be avoided at all reasonable costs. Because of the costs and environmental damage associated with disposal by landfill at the end of life for packaging, diversion from the landfill should be the prime goal of any sustainability program. It is also becoming clear that disposal by “landfill” is too often becoming disposal at sea.
Sustainability considerations, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), CO2 and industrial packagings
Everyone with any significant experience in the packaging industry has experience with Life Cycle Analysis [LCA] as that concept has matured and become more sophisticated. It has also vastly grown in scope and complexity. Of course, equally common in the industry are the stories of the very substantial costs associated with these LCA’s. As the scope of these analyses have grown, they have also shifted in a direction that is not conducive to good stewardship of resources for the industrial packaging community. By this I mean that there is too large a focus on CO2 and greenhouse gases. Packaging, like all “things” is embodied energy. In this industrial economy, embodied energy generally involves CO2 output. If CO2 considerations drive the sustainability analysis, other very important goals can be compromised. The reality is that the entire CO2 component of industrial packaging is probably smaller than the rounding error in the CO2 calculations of the economies that they facilitate, surrounding their use. Precious resources can be squandered in very complex estimations of CO2 that are of dubious utility to the society and the environment. This is not an argument for ignoring CO2 as a problem, or an argument against the options available for use of lower CO2 energy or raw material sources when they are available; it is an argument for placing it alongside other considerations that may be equally, or more important in a sustainability program. Material reduction, reuse, recycling, and conversion to energy, as diversions from landfilling packaging at end of life may well override considerations of the CO2 footprint in a well-designed sustainability program.
Packaging as Waste
Diversion of packaging out of the waste stream certainly is and will remain the focus of regulators and political authorities. The State of California held hearings this year to update waste regulations. Landfill costs are escalating, the problem is getting larger, and their current program is not working. We all know that political “leaders” are not going to impose a cost or inconvenience on their voters, if said cost and inconvenience can be transferred to entities who do not vote, that would be the packaging manufacturers. Enter “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR). This is already used in other countries to recoup the costs associated with packaging waste disposal. California is discussing the implementation of EPR there. This is not isolated to California. Costs of landfilling and remediation of problem land-fills are soaring. Making trash mountains out of holes in the ground cannot be part of any sane sustainability plan.
The good news is that the industrial packaging industry is already well positioned to meet this challenge with the extensive re-conditioning/reuse capabilities already in existence and proven. This is increased by the emergence of pooled intermediate bulk packagings in open-loop reuse programs that are already extensively deployed in the big box retail environments.
Efforts to increase the rates of recycling of plastic industrial packagings would be a very prudent industry effort. This will require an effort around the issues associated with chemical contamination of the plastic by its contents.
For exporters to Europe, adherence to EC Directive 94, using the associated ISO Standards, provides a framework to meet both a regulatory obligation, and the most important parts of a general sustainability plan for packaging.
The difficult part of this project will be to build systems to retrieve types of industrial packagings that are not customarily valuable to re-conditioners. This has been accomplished in some niche industries through associations, but with mixed success. Necessity, born of EPR, may the mother of reinvention here. In whatever case, surveillance of recovery systems and rates is a very good first step in identifying the scale of the problem.